DOJ: Congress Held ‘a Gun to Our Head’ So We Didn’t Review Subpoenaed Census Question Docs

Attorneys for the Department of Justice on Friday attempted to explain the Trump administration’s non-response to congressional demands for documents related to the defunct 2020 census citizenship question effort. The judge didn’t buy what was sold.

Democrats on the House Oversight Committee filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia against Attorney General William Barr and Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross last month, in an effort to enforce the panel’s subpoenas. The subpoenas, which were issued in April, sought documents relevant to the administration’s since-failed attempt to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census.

Justice Department attorney Elizabeth Shapiro contended that the Trump administration engaged in good faith negotiations with House Democrats, but were forced to abandon those efforts after the House voted in July to formally hold Barr and Ross in contempt of Congress for defying the panel’s subpoenas. Shapiro also said that the documents sought haven’t been thoroughly reviewed.

“At that point, there was no negotiating,” Shapiro said, according to a Politico report on Friday. She said the circumstances for the Justice Department were akin to having “a gun to our head.”

Shapiro also argued that the Justice Department would need extended time for filing its briefs in the case if the department were required to review all of the subpoenaed documents and provide an explanation as to why they were withheld from Congress.

“I disagree entirely,” an incredulous U.S. District Judge Randolph Moss replied, adding that he knew from his own experience working as the head of the DOJ’s Office of Legal Counsel during Obama administration that Shapiro’s reasoning was off.

“[The reviewing of subpoenaed material] should occur before documents are withheld from Congress,” said the judge, an appointee of President Barack Obama. “I’m not sure it’s appropriate almost a year after the subpoenas were served to say we haven’t reviewed the documents yet…I think they need to.”

According to the report, much of Friday’s proceeding was encompassed by arguments about whether the case should be put on hold until the D.C. Court of Appeals decides a pending case on whether former White House counsel Don McGahn will have to abide by a House subpoena and testify before Congress against the instructions of President Donald Trump.

Moss, however, reportedly favored the argument from House Democrats’ general counsel Douglas Letter. Letter argued that this dispute should be resolved before the census is done in April 2020.

The Supreme Court back in June blocked the citizenship question because the official rationale for including it–enforcing the Voting Rights act–seemed “contrived.” The lower court said the rationale was “arbitrary and capricious.”

Since that time, Census Bureau emails have shown that the DOJ lied about the origins of the citizenship question.

[Image via Mark Wilson/Getty Images]

Jerry Lambe is a journalist at Law&Crime. He is a graduate of Georgetown University and New York Law School and previously worked in financial securities compliance and Civil Rights employment law.

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